YEREVAN (RFE/RL)—Hundreds of mostly young people scuffled with riot police in Yerevan on Friday in continuing protests against a controversial reform of Armenia’s pension system initiated by the government.
The police used force against the protesters and detained three of them after they blocked a street adjacent to the Armenian Ministry of Finance. All three men were set free later in the day.
The crowd organized by the Dem Em (I Am Against) pressure group demonstrated outside the ministry building in the city center to condemn Finance Minister Davit Sargsian for his warnings issued to public and private employers.
Sargsian said last week that the employers will face fines if they fail to enforce the reform requiring workers aged 40 and younger to save for retirement, despite its suspension by the Constitutional Court in late January. The court is scheduled to open on March 28 hearings on the constitutionality of the unpopular measure challenged by Armenia’s four main opposition parties.
Opponents of the reform say that tax authorities are therefore not allowed to deduct 5 percent of workers’ gross wages at least until a ruling on the case. Government officials, including Sargsian, claim the opposite.
“The minister has become a person extorting money,” Davit Manukian, a Dem Em leader, shouted through a megaphone outside the ministry building. Manukian and other protesters demanded that Sargsian come out of the building and meet them in public.
The 36-year-old minister refused to do that, sending instead the chief of his staff, Karen Tamazian, to talk to the angry protesters. “This is demagogy,” Tamazian told them. “This is not an offer of dialogue.”
Tamazian also said that Sargsian is ready to receive representatives of the protesters in his office. The crowd rejected the offer before throwing coins at the building and blocking the street. Police officers swiftly used force to unblock it.
The scuffles followed an attempted self-immolation by an elderly man who joined the demonstration. Nikolay Aghabekian, 67, poured gasoline over himself and tried to set himself on fire. Police officers were quick to stop him doing that.
Moments before the apparent suicide attempt Aghabekian urged the much younger people to keep up their campaign, brandishing his Soviet-era bank savings books. He said the lifelong savings were wiped out by hyperinflation in the early 1990s.
Hundreds of thousands of other Armenians suffered similar financial losses at the time. The fate of those cash deposits is one of the main arguments of workers opposed to the reform. They say that they may similarly be unable to retrieve their pension savings after retirement.
Government officials counter that the two private pension funds chosen to handle their money are owned by renowned European asset management firms. One of them is a joint venture between Austria’s C-QUADRAT Investment and Germany’s Talanx Asset Management. The other, Amundi-ACBA, is a subsidiary of the French banks Credit Agricole and Societe Generale.